06 Oct 2022
Anyone who’s experienced being enslaved by a life-dominating sin knows how easy it is to let that struggle become the lens through which you see all of life. You know how deadly the sin is. You know the power it possesses, and how powerless you feel to resist it.
Many people wrestling with addiction see their entire moral responsibility resting on a single prohibition: Thou shalt not. . .
They start to measure the strength of their relationship with God based on whether they looked at pornography that day. It doesn’t matter what else happened, good or bad—refraining from sexual sin becomes the sole gauge of spiritual health.
Living with Blinders
There are two pitfalls with this type of thinking. First, you become uninterested in any other area of sanctification in your life. Lying, stealing, idolatry, and unrighteous anger don’t even register as areas of needed growth because sexual sin has given you tunnel vision to any other problems. Your day may have been filled with selfish and self-indulgent pursuits, but, in your mind, it was a great day because you didn’t look at porn.
The second pitfall is just as soul-damaging. Letting your entire day rest upon your ability to perfectly resist sexual temptation also blinds you to the good work God may be doing in your life in other areas. Sexual sin is usually the fruition of many other, deeper heart issues that God is slowly and surgically redeeming. There may be much groundwork being done in your life even while you continue to lose many battles against temptation. Blindness to this good work that God is doing can co-opt a trajectory of growth through discouragement and despair.
Take off the Blinders
It’s time to take off the blinders. It’s time to embrace the full panorama of God’s redemptive purposes for your life. On the day of judgment, God is not only interested in what sins you refrained from. He’s equally interested in what good fruit your life produced. This is why theologians have developed two categories for sin: sins of commission and sins of omission. Sins of commission are the sins we commit. We lust, we steal, we lie, we covet. We focus most of our repentant energy on sins of commission. And that’s understandable. The Ten Commandments are largely addressing sins we commit. That is why eight out of the ten are stated in the negative: Thou shalt not. . .
But it was paradigm-shifting for me to read the Westminster Larger Catechism and realize that with every prohibitive commandment is an implied command to do its opposite instead. Not taking the Lord’s name in vain implies the command to revere his name in honor. Not killing implies the command to actively preserve and promote life in others. Not lying implies the command to speak the truth in love to build up your neighbor. Failure to do the opposite of these prohibitions is also sin. Sins of omission are the failure to do the good which God commands. Sin is not just what we have done, but also what we have left undone.
The Opposite of Sexual Sin
If I’m honest, I used to think that all God cared about was that I didn’t lust after other people. If that’s God’s standard, then my tactic was simply to avoid others. If I didn’t have to interact with them, then I was honoring God. But I failed to see that the opposite of lust is not avoidance, but love. There may still be people you need to avoid, especially if they’ve been a snare to you. That is wisdom. But what I’m addressing is a much broader issue of seeing other people not as objects of temptation, but as image-bearers to love.
We fail our brothers and sisters who struggle with sexual sin if we don’t help them to humanize others. God wants so much more than avoidance of sin. He wants the love of Christ to shine forth from our lives.
So what does a life of repentance from sexual sin look like?
Putting off Coveting and Putting on Christ-Centered Contentment
God gives a husband and wife to each other so that, in body and soul, they belong to one another. There’s a sense of co-ownership in marriage. Adultery is so damaging because it’s an outsider stealing what does not belong to them. God has designed sexual desire to be expressed and satisfied solely within the confines of biblical marriage.
This means true repentance for a married man and woman will lead to increasing contentment and delight in their spouse. The positive command we are to obey is to “rejoice in the wife of your youth” (Prov. 5:18). It’s not enough to only guard your heart against coveting your neighbor’s wife, you are also commanded by God to actively cultivate a growing love and desire for your spouse. How many Christian husbands believe their apathy toward pursuing their wives romantically is a sin of omission? Contentment must never be confused with complacency. Contentment is proactive; complacency is passive.
For my single brothers and sisters, contentment does not mean it’s wrong to desire marriage. Contentment means that, while you pursue this good thing, your heart is guarded against despair, bitterness, or anger toward the Lord when his timing seems delayed. Your contentment is grounded in what is best: belonging to Christ.
Spirit-gifted contentment flows from the same source for both married and singles. It is not found in any other person than Jesus Christ.
Putting off Idolatry and Putting on True Worship
Idolatry is always at the root of sexual sin. Sex is seen as the means of providing something that feels like life itself. That idol may be pleasure, comfort, control, security, or affirmation. But all of these desires are vanity of vanities when they are separated from the Giver of all true life.
True repentance from sexual sin is not a stoic experience. It’s a life of increasing joy and zeal for God’s glory. It’s a life of growing anticipation and expectation to see your Savior face to face. It’s a life of worshipping our triune God in spirit and in truth.
I’m always amazed by our Savior’s words in John 4:23 when he says, “the Father is seeking such people to worship him.” We were created for this very purpose. Our Father longs to find such people! Sexual sin is not only idolatry, but a failure to do the most fundamental thing we were created for—it’s a failure to delight in the Lord.
Putting off Lust and Putting on Love
We see very clearly in 1 Corinthians 13 that any attempt at repentance not grounded in love is pointless. Repentant love must be directed both vertically and horizontally. This means that God is not pleased with us swapping out sexual sin for some other, less damaging pleasure. Many people try to simply replace lust with social media, video games, exercise, or food, all the while continuing to neglect spiritual nourishment. Paul would tell you, if you’re doing this, you gain nothing.
But even if your rejection of lust is the result of deeper fellowship with Christ, it must not stop there. For John warns us that you cannot love God and hate your brother. True love for God will lead to true love for your neighbor.
It’s a frightening thing to see husbands who are turning from pornography but still abusing their wives. This is a false repentance that brings no pleasure to God.
God is not only calling you to turn from lustful thoughts, he’s calling you to see and treat others as his image-bearers in all purity, dignity, and honor. Lust selfishly steals from others. Love selflessly serves others. Lust devotes our thoughts to sexual fantasy. Love devotes our thoughts to prayerful intercession.
God is after so much more than removing sin from your life. He is committed to making you more like Christ, who not only turned from sin, but actively loved his Father and his neighbor perfectly.
“I said I would never do it again.”
“I can’t believe I’m back to the same old sin patterns.”
“Why can’t I stop doing this?”
“I thought I was past this.”
Why do we pursue sexual sin, particularly after we’ve come to loathe the impact it has on us, our spouse, our ministries, and our relationship with the living God? Have you ever said with the Apostle Paul, “Wretched man (or woman) that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24)?
There are many reasons why we pursue broken sexual choices, but I would like to focus on one core motivation: unfulfilled longing for something transcendent. Our hearts are designed to long for something intimate, life-giving, and hope filled. Sexual sin makes many promises, but it can never give us these things. Even godly sex within marriage, as glorious a gift as it may be, fails to be the ultimate fulfillment our hearts deeply—and rightly—long for. Speaking of the folly of idolatry in his commentary on Isaiah, Ray Ortlund says, “It’s absurd to try to derive an ultimate experience from a less-than-ultimate resource. That’s false worship” (293).
This blog follows a previous post entitled, “Single Christian, Are You Enjoying Your Union with Christ?” and takes a deeper look into union with Christ.
Two Distinct Realities: Union and Communion
Before discussing the nuts and bolts of how to enjoy your union with Christ, it’s important to make a distinction between two concepts: union and communion.
Union with Christ is a position Christians enjoy as a result of the work of Christ on their behalf, uniting them completely to himself. It is passively received; it is not something merited, achieved, or fought for. It is an act of sheer grace from God’s benevolent heart down to the Christian. Marcus Peter Johnson describes union this way in his book One with Christ:
To experience fellowship with the Son is to be made alive in Christ, justified in Christ, sanctified in Christ, seated in the heavenly realms in Christ, built up into Christ, and given fullness in Christ. Those joined to Christ are “members of Christ,” “crucified in Christ,” “included in Christ,” “baptized into Christ,” and “the body of Christ.” They eat and drink Christ, they are one with Christ, Christ dwells in them and they dwell in him; they can do nothing apart from him (39).
When reading this definition, you may be tempted to think, “Well, that’s great, but I live in the real world and certainly don’t feel like I’m on cloud nine, united to Jesus all day, every day!” How are we to reconcile the glorious truth of our irrevocable union with Christ with our day-to-day reality, which, if we’re honest, often feels dull, disappointing, or at times even hopeless?
Understanding the dynamics of our communion with the triune Godhead may shed light on the frustration of this dissonance between what we read in Johnson’s definition and what we experience in our daily lives.
Communion with God is the felt experience of the life of God intersecting with our own; it’s the sense that we relationally interact with God himself through the varied means of grace. We share in the life of God and relate to him in the many ways he represents himself as father, king, intercessor, comforter, counselor, refuge, friend, high priest, elder brother, great physician, husband, and sympathizer with our weakness. This isn’t even an exhaustive list of all the ways God describes his communion with his people! Contrary to our union with Christ, our communion does ebb and flow. It is subject to our weakness, efforts, striving, and lack thereof. We may experience profound joy in communion with Christ and we may experience seasons of weariness and discouragement. Even mature believers go through times when they struggle to have rich communion with God.
Our communion with God—or lack of communion—is one key to the “why” behind our sinful behaviors and attitudes. John Flavel says it this way:
The soul is so constituted that it craves fulfillment from things outside itself and will embrace earthly joys for satisfaction when it cannot reach spiritual ones. The believer is in spiritual danger if he allows himself to go any length of time without tasting the love of Christ and savoring the felt comforts of a Savior’s presence. When Christ ceases to fill the heart with satisfaction, our souls go in silent search of other lovers (vol. 2, 438).
Growing in holiness and purity is not merely the “putting off” of unwanted behaviors, though it is not less than that. It is also the “putting on” and pursuit of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Seeking deeper communion with God—the one who loves our souls—is a death blow to the pet sins we nurture because it brings the satisfaction we were longing for when we chose to pursue sin in the first place.
Acknowledging the Mystery
There is a degree of wonder and mystery involved in comprehending our union with Christ. When we pursue Christ, we’re endeavoring to do what only the Holy Spirit can enable us to do. In this life, we enjoy and commune with Christ by faith.
We must observe a posture of humility because, after all, we’re talking about communing with—enjoying, relating to—the living God. This is his world. All things are for him and through him and to him (Rom. 11:36), on his terms. Thankfully, we have a gracious God who wants to disclose himself to us—to be known and worshiped in Spirit and in truth. He is not hiding, so knowing God is not a scavenger hunt. Take heart! God relates to us intimately. He is deeply personal and specific, so there’s not a “one size fits all” method to unlock the secret to true communion.
It’s helpful to acknowledge that pursuing communion with Christ in a faithful way may differ for each Christian based on their season of life. A mother of young children, a man in hospice, a young professional, a pastor, and a teen all may have different habits of communion with God.
A dear brother in his nineties said that singing and playing his piano in worship to Christ has become more primary as Bible reading grew more difficult with age. Similarly, a mom with school-aged kids shared that in her single years she experienced her communion with God as primarily a silent, meditative time alone in the Scriptures. She laughed as she remarked, “I can’t remember the last time there was silence in our home!” As you seek after communion with God, seek first to be faithful in that pursuit. Rather than unlocking the secret to a transcendent experience, communion with God can grow even in the ordinary moments of daily life.
Why do we pursue sin in the first place? Often, it’s because we’re not pursuing our indescribably satisfying Savior. We try to fill our desire for transcendence with cheap trinkets when we have all the depth of the riches of wisdom and knowledge of God in Christ (Rom. 11:33). Indwelling sin can’t hold a candle to communion with God.
In the next installment of this blog series, I’ll discuss ten practical ways you can pursue deeper communion with Christ.
The prosperity gospel has become a lightning rod in many evangelical circles in the last ten years. Biblical teaching on this heretical distortion of the gospel reveals its true nature: it’s a way to use God to worship ourselves and achieve our own aims.
Religion columnist Cathleen Falsani said the prosperity gospel, “an insipid heresy whose popularity among American Christians has boomed in recent years, teaches that God blesses those God favors most with material wealth.” She goes on to say, “The gospel of prosperity turns Christianity into a vapid bless-me club, with a doctrine that amounts to little more than spiritual magical thinking: If you pray the right way, God will make you rich.”
But truth be told, deep down, we all love something about the prosperity gospel, don’t we? Our broken and autonomous hearts war against God’s Spirit within, in futile attempts to be lord of our own lives. When we look past our stated beliefs to the heart, most Christians must admit that we struggle to surrender our deepest desires to Christ—especially regarding sexuality. In many ways, we want God to help us make life work on our terms.
The Prosperity Gospel of Sexuality
The prosperity gospel of sex goes something like this: If I obey God, he will give me the things I desire sexually. This could mean an attractive and available spouse. It could mean fulfilling, passionate sex in marriage, or the removal of unwanted desires or shame from our past. Some of these are good things! However, most Christians have bought into the lie that we can earn our version of “sexual prosperity” by obedience.
This reveals the deeper question: Is Christ our prize?
In Luke 14:25–33, Jesus tells us about the cost of discipleship. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” Jesus provides utter clarity on the terms of discipleship. But he does not harshly coerce or entrap his disciples into his sheepfold. Rather, he invites them into an honest discourse about their desires, suffering, and the ultimate cost of being a disciple of Jesus.
Counting the Cost
Jesus goes on to say, “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish’” (Luke 14:28–30, my emphasis).
If you regularly bypass the conviction of God’s Spirit to engage in unholy relationships, behaviors, or thought patterns, have you considered stopping to count the cost of your surrender to Christ? Can you honestly remember a time when you considered life in Christ, the glories of God, and the gift of salvation against your competing desires?
Is allowing your sexual desires to rule your life working for you? As Psalm 16 says, “the sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply.” Brother or sister, do you know the pain of having run after another god? Perhaps the god of a toxic and co-dependent friendship, an out-of-bounds sexual relationship, or the self-worship inherent in pornography and masturbation? We can’t build our life on the foundation of our own desires, with ourselves as the lord, and truly live.
Deliberating with the King
Jesus turns us to another example in verse 31: “Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace” (my emphasis). Brother or sister, hear the wise counsel of Jesus. Are you willing to sit down and deliberate with God regarding your deepest desires?
The very same God invites, “Come now let us reason together, says the Lord; though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Isa. 1:18). Will you reason with God regarding your desires that compete with allegiance to him? He invites you to do so! Our God knows our hearts. He sees how we’ve been broken, abused, or disappointed. He sees the cost many Christians will face for following Jesus in their sexuality. Our generous Lord will not ask of us something which he will not abundantly comfort in the riches of his kindness for all eternity (Eph 2:7).
Jesus, Our True Prize
The prosperity gospel gets something right. We do receive riches and benefits when we come to Christ. But the benefit and riches are found in Christ himself, as he offers himself to us as a faithful provider and the one who knows our deepest longings. In Christ, we will benefit from his love for all eternity.
However, in this earthly life, we will struggle to believe that our suffering has purpose or that God’s ways are truly better. God invites you today to honestly grapple with him, to bring your warring desires to him in surrender (even the good ones), knowing his ways lead to life and flourishing—even as we suffer and long for many things. As Helen Roseveare, who suffered deeply in her surrender and service to Jesus as a missionary, said at the Urbana Missions Conference in 1976,
“One word became unbelievably clear, and that word was privilege. He didn’t take away pain or cruelty or humiliation. No! It was all there, but now it was altogether different. It was with him, for him, in him. He was actually offering me the inestimable privilege of sharing in some little way the edge of the fellowship of his suffering. . . One has tried to ‘count the cost,’ but I find it all swallowed up in privilege. The cost suddenly seems very small and transient in the greatness and permanence of the privilege.”
23 Jun 2022
Name: Irene Maguire
Hometown: Cork, Ireland
Position: Administrative Manager
Description of work at Harvest USA: As with any non-profit, I get to wear many hats at Harvest!
- Facilities Manager: I oversee office management and liaise with the building owners to ensure our space is a good and safe place to work. I also oversee maintenance and supplies, including supporting staff with good technology, networks, phone systems, and teaching space.
- Website: I take care of the backend of the website, so it works smoothly and all the blogs (including this one!) post as they should—making sure the hyperlinks actually link and anything downloadable does just that—downloads!
- Online Store: A crucial part of our website is our online store, which includes print resources and free digital downloads, and I oversee the fulfillment process. Since its inception, the store has been a major tool in raising Harvest’s profile both here at home and internationally.
- Database: I am the database administrator—that piece of the puzzle that links Harvest to its supporters. You’re reading this piece because you’re in our database! We work hard on the backend to ensure our data is up-to-date and accurate.
- Coffee!!! Last but not least, I make sure we have really, really good coffee beans. Nobody gets any work done around here without good coffee!
How did you get to Harvest USA? I came to America to come out. I was chasing after a girlfriend who was based in the States. One of the last things I said to God before I got on the plane was, “If you do exist, prove it.” Now never, ever give the Lord an opening like that and expect him not to take advantage of it! Shortly after arriving, I had to grapple with the realization that God did exist. Then the issue was, and continues to be, how am I going to live out my life in light of his existence? What does it mean to be a Christian struggling with same-sex attraction but living in holiness before God? As part of that ongoing process, I joined a Harvest group about a year after arriving in the States. It was a safe and challenging place to start my journey—living honestly before the Lord. Like all journeys, it’s been full of ups and downs. I would say it’s become less about sexuality and more about me as an entire person—of which my sexuality is just one part. It’s about realizing God loves me for who I am and in spite of who I am. My work at Harvest has also been part of that journey for twenty-three of those years. I believe the work done here, being signposts to Christ for others who grapple with these issues, is altogether worth it. I believe what we do equips individuals and families for the long haul, helping them deal with the realities of living in a complicated, frenetic world and showing them that Christ is in it with them no matter how fraught it gets.
What is your favorite Scripture? Proverbs 31:25–26:
She is clothed with strength and dignity;
she can laugh at the days to come.
She speaks with wisdom,
and faithful instruction is on her tongue. (NIV)
This woman is not alarmed by the future or what it can bring, nor is she anxious about the opinions of others. She looks forward in confidence and anticipation of Christ, her shepherd, leading her. She looks forward to a certain, eternal future. These things are easy to write but living them out—now there’s the rub! But, unless I am willing to step out on this road, willing to travel it, I will never get to know how that journey ends.
What is your favorite thing about living in Philadelphia? Philly has a sense of history that I appreciate. It’s a city of small, bustling neighborhoods once you step off the main streets. It’s a city of contradictions, yet not overpowering or as “in your face” as New York. Another thing about living in this part of the US is the four distinct seasons. Someone asked me what I would miss most if I ever left, and that would be watching the dogwoods bloom each spring—always a joy.
Can you tell us an interesting fact about yourself? I traveled a couple of times to Nepal, working as support to medical teams serving the hill villages in the Lamjung region. Lamjung is an area northwest of Katmandu in the shadow of the glorious Himalayas. There’s a saying that to drive in India and Nepal is to have a firm belief in the afterlife. . . I can attest that this is absolutely true! Your concept of travel and distance changes. Getting to a village on the opposite side of the valley, seemingly so close that you could reach across and touch it, takes a day’s hike and sore knees! But I would go back in a heartbeat to be among the hill people again. Their generosity and kindness make the sore knees worth it!
Have you heard a sermon on singleness lately? If you’re honest, as a single Christian, perhaps you bristle at the thought of the topic. Maybe you’ve been wounded or just plain frustrated by some of the messages you’ve heard—likely on themes of contentment, sexual purity, and guarding against selfishness. I heartily affirm these as relevant themes for godly single Christians to consider. But when was the last time you, my single brother or sister, considered how the abundant riches of Christ can be uniquely experienced in your singleness?
Do you regularly relish the wealth of Christ that is yours to be received and enjoyed right now? Surely there’s more to life than just holding on for your condition of singleness to change.
Whether you’re single and waiting or have become single through the painful loss of widowhood or unwanted divorce, this post is particularly for you. Still, because all true believers are brought into irrevocable union with Christ, all Christian readers can rejoice over these truths regardless of their marital status.
What are some features of singleness that can draw out—or perhaps even enhance—some of the blessings of a believer’s union with Christ?
Have you heard about the pitfalls of being single? Perhaps you’ve heard negative discussions around things like excess free time, the need for wisdom in relationships, temptation toward sexual sin, and concerns about selfishness. These are all real concerns, and faithful singles should pursue obedience in them. However, have you considered your time of singleness as an opportunity for undivided devotion to Christ? For simplicity in your devotion to him?
In 1 Corinthians, Paul gives the most explicit instructions for marriage and singleness found in the New Testament: “But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that” (1 Cor. 7:28). He goes on to say:
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. (vv. 32–34)
I believe Paul is describing a simplicity that lends itself to an undivided heart toward Christ. Is Paul saying here that those in a season of widowhood or singleness have simple, worry-free lives? I don’t think so. But one of the opportunities unique to singles is to pursue undivided simplicity and devotion to Christ, while looking to the reward. Christ himself, and communion with him, is that reward.
Christ Our Reward
Consider Jesus’s words in the Great Commission, as he’s sending his people out to fulfill his mission: “Behold! I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Or when Jesus speaks of his Holy Spirit and says, “And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever” (John 14:16, emphasis mine). Is this not one of the things our hearts long for most? We long for someone who will make a permanent covenant with us—one who will be with us forever, who will be “our person,” our closest companion. Jesus himself promises to be nothing less than this to us, by faith, in this present age.
These are not mere platitudes or simple ideas to appease us as Christians. These are rich truths to be received, meditated upon, and taken hold of by faith! Dear Christian brother or sister in a season of singleness, would you consider today the riches of Christ? They’re not only yours for all eternity but can be received by faith today! Would you take hold of them in Christ with all your heart? By prayer? In community with the family of God?
Receiving Christ in a Season of Unmet Longings
Maybe these words sting a little for some. How can I enjoy Jesus when I’m experiencing the pain of unmet desires? What if Jesus seems like a consolation prize to settle for? I want to affirm the good desire for romance, sexual expression, and companionship that are found in a godly marriage—but even this good thing only points to the greater reality found in Christ.
Let’s listen to Paul’s words again: “I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:35). Paul’s goal for this exhortation is clear: undivided devotion to the Lord. Just before this, Paul, in speaking to all believers, says:
This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (vv. 29–31)
Even those in godly marriages are called to live in such a way that the glory of Christ is at the forefront because the present form of this world is passing away.
If this idea doesn’t get you excited, I would encourage you to consider that God created your longings and therefore knows how to fulfill them better than any other. Psalm 16:11 makes a stunning claim about God: “In your presence is fullness of joy, at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” The life of a single Christian, united to Christ, can be truly rich. As Sam Allberry writes, single believers have an opportunity to display the sufficiency of God’s promises in the gospel and his love for us relationally.
Ask God to help you see things the way he sees them. How might your perspective need to shift to align with his holy and righteous view? He longs to meet you and help you as your loving Lord.
Invite God into the painful moments when you feel the sting of being single. Another wedding without a plus one? Feeling left behind in life as your friends move on? These moments of sorrow also include an invitation for you to have Christ himself bear your burdens with you.
Ask God to search you for ungodly attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors around your singleness. Repent and turn from these things. Maybe you just don’t believe that Christ can fulfill the deepest longings of your heart. Maybe you’ve tried to seek him in the past and it didn’t seem to “work.” Don’t do this alone! Seek the help of trusted brothers and sisters walking with you along the journey.
Wait on the Lord as you long to receive the good gifts he has for you in your singleness. Jesus is the greatest gift. There are no guarantees about when or how he will show up; be on the lookout! It helps to keep in mind that we still experience the felt comforts of Jesus amid a broken world this side of heaven. Have your heart and eyes wide open for the ways in which he is meeting you with his sustaining grace in the present even as he points you toward the ultimate fulfillment of your all your longings in heaven—namely, perfect fellowship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Single brothers and sisters, let’s pursue our glorious Savior, Jesus Christ, with all that we have, in whatever season God has called us to for today. He not only gives us good gifts in every season, but he himself is our portion and our eternal delight (Ps. 16). Enjoy your unshakeable union with Christ today. He is worthy!
Caitlin McCaffrey is our new Women’s Ministry staff member and started with us in July 2022. Please consider joining her financial support team here!
A recent discussion in my home centered around a television episode in which the “happy ending” consisted of the hero and heroine deciding to move in together but not get married. I suspect most readers of this post do not believe that that is truly a happy ending. But why? Is it just because God says so? Well, that would be enough, but there is more to say about it—God has given us more.
First, we must understand that sex, in its true form, is inseparable from marriage. This is more than just saying that marriage is the only proper context for sexual expression. It means that the very essence of sex, as its Creator designed it, includes it being an expression of the marital union. You can see this if you do a study of the passages in Scripture that use the phrase “the two shall become one flesh.” This phrase refers most literally to sex itself, but it also refers to the whole marriage union, of which sex is the physical expression. C.S. Lewis explained it this way:
The Christian idea of marriage is based on Christ’s words that a man and wife are to be regarded as a single organism—for that is what the words “one flesh” would be in modern English.… The inventor of the human machine was telling us that its two halves, the male and the female, were made to be combined together in pairs, not simply on the sexual level, but totally combined. The monstrosity of sexual intercourse outside marriage is that those who indulge in it are trying to isolate one kind of union (the sexual) from all the other kinds of union which were intended to go along with it and make up the total union. The Christian attitude does not mean that there is anything wrong about sexual pleasure, any more than about the pleasure of eating. It means that you must not isolate that pleasure and try to get it by itself, any more than you ought to try to get the pleasures of taste without swallowing and digesting, by chewing things and spitting them out again.¹
Sex as a physical union has its meaning only in the context of the relational, emotional, legal union that is the whole marriage. So while Paul speaks of sex with a prostitute as “becoming one flesh” (1 Corinthians 6:16), he does so only to point out how horribly such sex fails in its God-intended meaning. That meaning is only properly expressed when sex is an expression of the marriage union. Just like a word out of context can actually carry a different meaning, so, too, sexual activity outside of the context of marriage carries a meaning different than that for which God designed it.
And that God-intended meaning is nothing less than the gospel itself. In both 1 Corinthians 6:12–20 and Ephesians 5:25–32, the union termed as “the two shall become one flesh” is described as pointing to our union with Christ. And because sex is inseparable from marriage, it is not just marriage as a one-flesh union, but also sex as the physical expression of that union that is meant to picture the union of Christ and his Bride, the Church. Sex as an expression of marital union speaks the gospel; sex independent of marriage speaks anti-gospel.
What is one specific way this applies to our “happily” cohabitating television heroes? Let’s consider how the lifelong permanence of the marriage union affects the meaning of sex. Jesus speaks to the permanence of the marriage relationship in Matthew 19:3–6. The Pharisees asked him whether one can divorce his wife for any cause. Jesus answers by going back to the beginning, quoting, “The two shall become one flesh.” His conclusion is that the intent from the beginning was that marriage be permanent. For the time in which marriage exists—this life—it extends from now until the end—“until death do we part.” This covenantal commitment is largely what constitutes “getting married,” and this permanence is part of the implication of becoming one flesh. This has profound implications for how sex is to be expressed and experienced.
In 1 Corinthians 6:12–20, the idea of permanence is a part of how Paul relates sex to the gospel, specifically, how sexual immorality is incongruent with the gospel. Paul begins by quoting the mindset he will refute. It is the mindset that approaches sex and sexuality from a merely biological perspective, as an appetite to be fulfilled: “’Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’—and God will destroy both one and the other” (verse 13). This view sees sexuality as simply identifying the urges of our bodies and acting accordingly. This view also emphasizes the present; the future is irrelevant. In contrast to this, Paul gives a perspective that is not biological but theological: “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body” (verse 13). He is placing the question of sexual morality into the greater context of the gospel, to which sexuality is merely a pointer. Then Paul says, “Do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him” (verse 16–17). He is not just saying something like, “It’s not nice to be joined to both a prostitute and the Lord!” Rather, the idea is that sexual union is supposed to be a signpost to spiritual union with Christ, but if that union is outside of marriage, with a prostitute, it displays a “union” which is a tragic distortion of the union we have with Christ. One way in which it is a distortion is that it is void of any connection to permanence. This is why Paul counters the live-for-the-moment motto, “God will destroy both one and the other,” with, “God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power” (verse 14). Rather than being merely the source of animal impulses and appetites to be followed in the moment, our bodies have eternal significance in our union with Christ; because we are united to a risen Christ, our bodies will also be raised, not destroyed. Paul is saying that our present experience of union with Christ is shaped by the certainty of our future resurrection with him. That makes a tremendous difference to us today. If sex is to point to this vital gospel truth, it too must be grounded in permanence rather than the instability of momentary passions.
One way to get at this is to ask, “How would our understanding and experience of the gospel change if it was not based on an eternal promise—if the benefits of union with Christ were only a present possession, with no guarantee or commitment from Jesus concerning the future?” In other words, what if the relationship of Christ to his Church was merely a cohabitation, not a marriage? For instance, if we did not have God’s promise that he would surely complete what he had begun in us, what would be the effect? We would conclude that we had to perfect ourselves, to prove to him that we were worth his sticking with us—and we would have no confidence in our relationship when we failed in any way. We would be insecure, fearful, needy, and miserable. You see where this is going: This is exactly the way sex, disconnected from the permanence of marriage, affects us and our relationships.
What are some ways in which our culture’s views and experiences of sex are not grounded in permanence? It is all about what we can experience right now. Hook-up culture tries to pretend it is a non-relational transaction. Pornography encourages the fantasy of sexual enjoyment without any relationship to another person at all. How does this negatively impact our experiences of sexuality? What fears, sorrows, or hurts result? If we are honest, sex—and the desire for it—is often dominated by fear, disappointment, and grief. Instead of security, we get insecurity. Instead of the confidence and freedom of knowing we are loved and accepted in spite of our failures or shortcomings or imperfections, we are constantly made aware of our need to impress or please or perform perfectly. We want affection but are terrified of not measuring up to expectations. We have to compete to become desirable or to stay desirable to those whose attention we crave. We are afraid of rejection. We think we have found joy, only to be jilted and thrown out like used trash. We turn to fantasy and porn to escape the huge risk and crushing disappointment of misunderstanding and rejection that come with broken sexuality. Sex without permanence, like a gospel without permanence, provides no safety at all, only a miserable striving after what cannot be grasped.
This is why the TV couple moving in together was not a happy ending. It is just another seductive counterfeit of true sexuality. Without the joy and security of the marital permanence, it utterly fails in its purpose to point to the joy and security of the gospel.
¹Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity, (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001), 104–105.
The following blog is an article from our 2021 Harvest USA Magazine entitled Standing Firm for His Glory. To read more articles from this issue, simply click here or visit www.harvestusa.org/magazines/.
“But isn’t it just a lust problem?” Mike asked. I was explaining to Mike the Harvest USA Tree Model, the core content of our ministry to both individuals and churches. Mike wanted to believe what I was saying about the deeper aspects of his sin. It gave him hope that there was a path to victory in his fight against the porn habit he’d been losing for years, because willpower certainly hadn’t worked. His objection revealed a problem that most of us encounter when thinking about our sin.
Mike’s question forces us to seek a more complete understanding of sin. We tend to think of sin in simple ways that only scratch the surface: I’m tempted; I fall; I repeat. But a biblical view of sin goes much deeper. This is what our Harvest USA Tree Model illustrates.
Jesus describes sin as having a source deep within us, in the heart, the epicenter of where our intellect, will, and affections all converge. In Matthew 15:18–19, Jesus said, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” Thinking of our hearts as part of a tree originates from Jesus’ words in Luke 6:43–45: “For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his heart produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” Building upon these verses, our Tree Model pictures the heart as the source of a tree, the seed.
The Seed: Our Hearts
The most basic characteristic of the seed, or heart, is that it is fallen. The word “autonomy” summarizes the sinful inclination of our hearts. We desire self-rule rather than being ruled by the authority and care of God. Our desire for autonomous independence from God affects every aspect of our lives. It shapes our reactions to our circumstances and experiences; it skews our deepest desires; it taints our functional worldviews. These are the inner workings of sin that bear fruit in what we do. The following three make up the other elements of the tree: the soil, the roots, and the trunk.
The Soil: Our Circumstances and Experiences
The soil is the context for the seed. The parents to whom we were born, our families, and our peers are all part of the soil. It is all the things those people do to us or for us—or neglect to do. It is everything that happens to us, good or bad. We are praised, abused, affirmed, attacked, protected, or wounded. We experience trauma and suffering, or we live in shelter and safety. Together, these experiences comprise the context in which our fallen hearts are active.
It is important to note that the soil is influential but not determinative. The influence of experience and context can be profound and must be taken into account if we want to understand and turn from entrenched sin patterns, but our circumstances do not determine our actions. Our fallen hearts are always interacting with the soil, interpreting and responding to both positive and negative experiences.
The Roots: Our Deepest Desires
One of the ways in which our hearts interact with our contexts is by desire. We were created to receive certain blessings and gifts from the gracious hand of our Creator. As his image bearers, God gave us desires for security, significance, glory, affirmation, love, purpose, and order. Marriage, fellowship, friendship, and other social connections were intended to be conduits of love, affirmation, affection, and intimacy as we became “fruitful and multiplied,” according to God’s blessing.
We still want all of these blessings that were given or promised to us, but now our hearts want them autonomously. We don’t want to receive God’s blessings in his way, in his time, according to his authority or design; we want them on our terms. Second, the soil itself is cursed, and the world and the relationships in it are broken. This combination means that our desires are problematic for us. Separated from God, the true source of every blessing we could rightly desire, we tend to substitute counterfeits to suit our fallen hearts. These counterfeits become our idols. When we speak of idols of the heart, we are referring to desires that have become so important to us that they have replaced God in our hearts. They control us, so we sometimes refer to these as controlling desires.
The Trunk: Our Functional Worldviews
Our idolatrous desires both shape and are shaped by our thinking. We develop patterns of thought that form the grid for our interactions with our world. We sometimes call these “shoots” because they arise out of our hearts’ interaction with the soil, but, because they continue to grow until they are strong and fixed, we can also call this the trunk. Both terms refer to our functional worldviews—our unspoken and largely unconscious set of beliefs about God, the world, ourselves, and other people, which form the basis for our daily lives. These are not the doctrinal affirmations you would likely recite if asked to describe what you officially believe. Instead, this set of beliefs is reflected in the ways that you actually live.
The Gospel: New Hearts, New Trees
The Tree Model illustrates that our behaviors—the fruit—are but a symptom of how the tree is functioning. When you hope in Christ, he renews your heart, and your entire tree is renewed. The Bible promises us a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26–27) and describes and our new life as being “in Christ” (Romans 8:1), “hidden with Christ” (Colossians 3:3), and—using a tree metaphor—“grafted into” the tree of salvation (Romans 11:17). The new heart and new life that Christ gives is the beginning of an entirely new tree. In the gospel, our true and eternal identity is in Christ, even though we still battle with the patterns and baggage of our old ways. Rather than simple self-discipline and willpower, though, the real source of change is new faith and affections in our hearts, redeemed desires, and transformed worldviews—all given to us in Christ.
Back to Mike
So how did this help Mike, the questioning struggler with whom I was speaking? By examining his soil, Mike identified a few influential experiences: His dad abandoned the family when he was nine, and his mom became an alcoholic, leaving Mike to care for three younger siblings. By outward appearances, he succeeded admirably in this role, proving himself capable and receiving praise from others, but Mike’s heart became controlled by a fear of chaos and a strong desire for both control and affirmation—his roots. He developed the unspoken belief that, on one hand, people were a threat to him; on the other hand, their adoration of him was essential to his worth. He believed he must control people and things at all costs. Pornography was the fruit. In it, he fantasized about the adoration he craved while holding complete control and avoiding the chaos and threat of relationships. Now, no longer autonomous but armed with faith that his heart and identity were new in Christ, Mike brought all the truths and promises of the gospel to his experiences (soil), his desires (roots), and his thoughts (trunk).
Of course, this is a simplified and condensed version of Mike’s story. In reality, change happens over a lifetime of discipleship, in relationship with others in the Body of Christ. This is why we want leaders and individuals in churches to have this tool. We use our Tree Model to train people in a biblical view of sin and the gospel.
19 Aug 2021
The following is adapted from Unit 2, Lesson 1, of our newest curriculum for men, Discovery: A Biblical Support Group Curriculum for Men Pursuing Sexual Integrity, which is available as a FREE digital download here.
Do you really think the Church can be helpful to you in your current struggle? What impact do you think the Church has had, good or bad, on your struggle with sexual sin?
In Harvest USA’s Tree Model, the soil—your environment—is everything around you that you cannot control. Most of what has happened in your past is “fallen” and has been influential in the development of your particular sin patterns. Influential, but not determinative. The soil is not determinative because, ultimately, your heart is always interpreting and interacting with the soil. As we have seen in the last several lessons, though, the fallen world in which you live—in which your heart seeks life apart from God—plays a very significant role.
However, those of us who are in Christ, who have been given a new heart, also have new soil in one sense. Our new identity in Christ is not a lone identity. God puts every person with a new heart within a new context, the Church, which is called “the Body of Christ” in Scripture. Eventually, the new life we have in Christ will thrive in a wholly new heaven and new earth, perfect soil for a glorified humanity. For now, in this time of living by faith and not by sight, the Church is our experience of renewed soil. We are emphasizing here the fact that your placement in the Church is something that God has done; you don’t actually get to decide whether or not you will be a part of Christ’s Body.
Though a model can make everything seem neat and tidy, this life is messy and challenging, even in the Church. All of the patterns, habits, and desires of the old life are still with us. As the Apostle Paul says in Galatians 5:17, “flesh” wars with “Spirit.” This is the case for all the other people in Christ’s “Body” as well. The Church is made up of forgiven sinners on the path of being transformed, put into relationship with other forgiven sinners on the path of being transformed. So, the soil of the Church will seem like part-fallen soil, part-renewed soil. Yet, as with each of us individually, the Church’s true and eternal identity is not defined by the sin that remains but by the righteous and glorious future that is guaranteed in Christ. Indeed, the Church is the true and only soil in which our new hearts are designed to grow and thrive, so we must consider how God intends for that to happen. This is the subject of the next few lessons.
When we are united to Christ by faith and given new hearts, those new hearts are placed by God into the context of his Church, the community in which they are designed to grow and thrive.
In Ephesians 2:18–22, Paul uses three metaphors to describe the Church: citizenship, a household, and a building. We want to draw out some of the implications of those metaphors. A citizen belongs in his or her nation or commonwealth. A citizen has both rights and responsibilities—rights to benefits, to protection, and to enjoy the riches and resources of the nation, as well as responsibilities to loyalty and to participation in joint national activities, whether celebrations or wars. It shouldn’t be too hard to see how these things apply to our inclusion in the Church.
Household implies family, and the Church is our true family. The head of this household, our Father, is very rich! As members or his family, we enjoy his wealth, which is strength and power in our inner beings. It is Christ in our hearts through faith and a strong foundation “rooted and grounded in love.” Just like the love shared in a normal family is experientially deeper than in general relationships, we have insider knowledge of the love of Jesus as we experience his love in the context of the church family. God, who is more powerful than we can ever think, makes that power to work in us together, not just in individuals.
How much of what we wrongly seek in sexual sin—safety, love, affirmation, togetherness, power, and strength—is rightly provided to us in the Church? For many of us, our natural human families were not a source of many of these things, but we make a great mistake if we transfer our disappointment and pessimism about our families of origin to God’s family. We need to vigorously pursue the resources of being in God’s family.
Verses 21–22 depict the Church as a building or structure—specifically, a “holy temple.” The image of a temple highlights that God himself is among us, “a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” “Being joined together” and “being built together” communicate the idea of the many different people in the Church enjoying deep unity. The vital connection to the foundation, the apostles, the prophets in the Bible, and Christ as the cornerstone is common to all the individual parts.
Despite a certain cynicism about the Church, we must strive to see the Church as God intended her to be. Our experiences in the Church as sexual sinners have often been rocky. The truth is that the Church hasn’t been a friendly, welcoming environment for many sexual strugglers, but this is not the way God designed it. It is never wrong for us to hear the promises of God’s Word and dare to believe them, in spite of past experiences.
It is far too easy for us to respond to descriptions of what the Church is designed to be by becoming cynical or critical of all the ways we think people in the Church have fallen short of this ideal. Indeed, the failure of God’s people is real; we are called to forbear and forgive within the Church, as well as cry out to God to heal his Church and make it flourish. We also should be asking God to help us see how our own actions or inactions have contributed to the Church not being what we may have hoped. Either way, God is asking each of us to play a part in being the Church. As we grow in this, not only will it bring essential help and strength for our own battles with sin, but we will also be used to encourage and build up others in the Church.
May you gain an appreciation for the necessity of the Church for your growth in Christ; reflect on how your sin struggle has negatively affected your ability to reap the full blessings of life in the Church; and grow in motivation to seek nourishment for your heart in the soil of the Church.
In recent years, there’s been a lot of online chatter and debate about homosexuality and same-sex attraction. I have a burden on my heart for how our brothers and sisters who wrestle in this way are faring in the midst of these debates. I recently reconnected with a dear sister who we’ll call Danae. I hope our conversation encourages you!
All of us have a unique story of faith, growth, and working out our salvation. How has same-sex attraction been a part of yours?
Danae: I first realized I was attracted to women when I developed an emotional connection with a friend after college. Eventually, our relationship turned sexual. Prior to that experience, I wasn’t aware of romantic or sexual attractions to women; this relationship was purely emotional to begin with. Yet, looking back, I became aware that I didn’t experience the boy-crazy phase that excited my peers. I dated men but never felt emotionally connected to them, which didn’t raise any alarm bells until I experienced emotionally intoxicating feelings with my female friend. I finally understood what friends had been talking about earlier in life. I felt excited and ashamed at the same time that these feelings came through relationship with a woman.
After dating guys, what was it like for you to be in a relationship with that friend?
Danae: Well, like I said, it was intoxicating to finally be in a romantic relationship that felt like love! The reality is that we slowly grew into a very entangled, emotional enmeshment, but the path into it seemed so life-giving: Our schedules revolved around each other; she just understood me in ways that guys never did; it seemed like I was finally home in a mutually loving relationship. The guys I dated were nice enough, but I never really felt that I truly liked them.
What kind of faith battles did you have once getting involved in same-sex relationships?
Danae: It was tough! I knew that this newfound joy was at odds with my Christian faith, and it created a whirlwind of confusion. How could what felt so good and right to me with this woman be so bad? I’d seen so many dysfunctional heterosexual relationships, and yet my girlfriend and I shared respect, care, and love for each other. There was a massive amount of heartache and confusion that began swirling in my life as I processed what felt natural to me but what the Bible calls not only sinful but also unnatural. My feelings won out, and, after that first relationship ended, I was pursued by other women and had several secret girlfriends over the next few years.
So what led to your willingness to re-surrender to Christ’s loving Lordship over this part of your life?
Danae: It was a gut-wrenching process for me, and, honestly, it still is at times. I felt love in these relationships with women, so to choose to let go and pursue obedience to God not only meant leaving someone I loved but also facing my fear that I might be single for the remainder of life. The cost of losing love, of not knowing what God would give in its place, was terrifying. Another layer of pain for me was that when I began sharing my story with other believers, they celebrated my obedience but offered very little understanding of the deep grief I was experiencing. Even if same-sex relationships are sinful, the loss of them still included heartache, pain, and confusion for me.
I know you suffered in silence for quite awhile, unknown and unsupported. What gave you the courage to eventually open up to someone?
Danae: Desperation! The pain and confusion I was experiencing eventually became greater than my fear of others finding out. I was desperate for help, for answers, for Jesus, and for hope that I could live a different way. A ministry leader moved towards me with compassion, patience, and an amazing gift of listening and drawing me out. She created the first safe place for me to be totally honest. It was scary but so worth it. She discipled me through Sexual Sanity for Women, and, while it wasn’t easy, lightbulbs came on as I began to understand, for the first time, how hurt and angry I was. There were deep layers of unbelief that emerged, and my mentor gently walked with me (and still does today!) as I faced the reality that I wanted to run my own life, and, in fact, thought I deserved to have what I wanted—what felt good to me. It’s been a slow journey that continues to this day, requiring me to trust God and his Word more than I trust myself, my feelings, and the way I think my life should work.
What is it like for you, with all the online debate among God’s people about homosexuality and how to talk about same-sex attraction? Does it help or hinder you?
Danae: To be honest, it depends. It can be heartbreaking and confusing on one hand, encouraging and inspiring on the other. It all depends on what the motivation of these discussions are. God’s Word has become precious to me, and knowing that his design is for our good has changed the way I view this struggle. To know that some Christians have gone soft on what the Bible clearly says is so deflating. When believers promote “gay Christianity,” it’s so disheartening because I’m seeking to be faithful to Jesus! My own brothers and sisters are forsaking the God who I’ve turned towards when turning away from sinful relationships! And yet I want to mention as well that it can be demotivating to hear leaders fighting about this stuff online as only an issue that needs to be clarified biblically. We absolutely need to have biblical faithfulness about this topic, but I also plead with leaders to not forget the people who are in the throes of working out their faith and repentance because of personal battles with same-sex desires. I’m grateful that Harvest USA seems to keep a helpful balance of biblical clarity and truth woven with compassionate, ground-level discipleship.
One final question for you: What would you say to the woman or man who is reading this and who is where you were so many years ago—hurting, wrestling in secret, and scared to reach out for help?
Danae: You’re not alone! I understand how scary it might seem to open up to someone about your same-sex relationships, inclinations, and what you really believe about all this. I get it—I really do! Jesus is not only inviting you, but also calling you, out of hiding and shame into himself, towards his love. That’s the true “outing” that all of us need, not to identify with our desires but to bring all of it to God. He’s promised to provide comfort and courage for the road in front of you—a road that will be hard and painful to some degree. Like I said earlier, I have grieved my sin and grieved what I lost when I gave up my sinful relationships. Yet living for and through Christ is the only true path towards the deep love we all want. Don’t give up; just take one step at a time.
Please pray for Danae and the many Christian women and men who are following Jesus faithfully, daring to push back on shifting convictions among God’s people.
23 Nov 2020
If you struggle with codependency and obsessive attachments, take heart! The Lord can help you and change you.
To learn more about this topic, consider purchasing Sex and the Single Girl: Smart Ways to Care for Your Heart or Your Dating Relationship and Your Sexual Past: How Much to Share by Ellen Dykas. When you buy these minibooks from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry.
You can also read the blog, “Codependent No More: Encouragement for Keeping Christ Central in Our Relationships,” which corresponds to this video.